New York, December 6, 2014—The decision by a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in the August shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager, reveals a vast divide between the ideal of the U.S. justice system and the reality, according to students, faculty, administrators, and staff who gathered Dec. 1 to reflect on the case at a special “Forum on Ferguson” event at Columbia Law School.
Columbia Law School professors Jeffrey A. Fagan and Bernard E. Harcourt also offered a detailed explanation of the grand jury process and presented data showing that, since 2000, fatal police shootings are on the rise in the U.S., despite a decrease in crime over the same time period.
BLSA President Aurra Fellows ’16 and Empowering Women of Color President Brittany L. Hazelwood ’16 both stressed the need for students and others to “arm” themselves with the facts and law so they can confront racism wherever they encounter it. The students mentioned several other cases around the country in which black men had been killed by police, including a recent shooting in a stairwell in a New York City Housing Authority apartment and the chokehold death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner. A jury returned a non-indictment in the Garner case on Dec. 3.
“I don’t think any of us came to law school to take these injustices lying down, so we want to figure out how we can stand up,” Fellows said.
During the discussion, some students shared their personal feelings about the case and asked a variety of questions related to the possibility of a civil suit or federal charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown.
Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a renowned expert on racial justice, noted that the Law School’s forum was being held on the 59th anniversary of the day Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She cautioned against relying on the legal system to address long-standing tensions among white people, law enforcement, and communities of color.
“Our law doesn’t really have the capacity to deal with that,” Crenshaw said. “Until the legal system can respond to that, we shouldn’t expect the indictments we’re hoping for.”
Instead, Crenshaw said, people need to apply social pressures to bring about reforms. She pointed to the nationwide “Blackout Black Friday,” in which protestors refused to shop on the day after Thanksgiving—one of the biggest retail shopping days of the year—as a demonstration against police brutality. Crenshaw also said racial-bias training and better accountability controls for police are necessary.
Harcourt, an expert in criminal law and procedure, said the St. Louis County grand jury process in the Brown case had so deviated from the norm that it became a “show trial.” According to him, instead of limited testimony designed to secure an indictment, the prosecutor presented approximately 60 witnesses; instead of taking the testimony in a non-adversarial fashion, the prosecutor cross-examined the witnesses aggressively; and, perhaps most striking, the entirety of the transcript was released to the public despite the fact that grand jury proceedings are usually secret.
“It’s almost as if the prosecutor created a private space to orchestrate a secret trial that could be presented to the American public as if it had been an open trial,” Harcourt said.
The Law School community is offering students a variety of opportunities to participate in the Ferguson case and others like it. Chapnick said her office would be organizing pro bono work for students over the winter break and for the spring semester. Hazelwood also said her group would lead a training for students who want to serve as “legal observers” at protests around the country and in New York. In addition, the Law School’s Office of Student Services is bringing in a counselor with expertise in trauma to support students in this difficult time. The specialist will be on campus Dec. 8 and Dec. 10.
Robert E. Scott, dean and the Alfred McCormack Professor of Law, offered introductory remarks at the event, and encouraged everyone in the legal community to take part in discussions like the “Forum on Ferguson.”
“As lawyers, it is a special and unique opportunity we have to explain and educate how the system is designed to operate and in what ways it may have failed,” he said.
Read fact sheets created by Fagan and Harcourt on the Brown and Garner cases.
Read student perspectives on the Ferguson case and its implications posted on The Morningside Muckraker, an independent student-run publication.
Recent faculty engagement on the issues raised by the cases:
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